Saturday, March 11, 2006

Elsewhere in the news

Perched at the edge of the continent, beset by monstrously dangerous weather, almost entirely dependent on government handouts for our daily living and the butt of jokes everywhere, this is a one tough town to live in.

Fargo, I mean. Oh, you thought I meant that other city perched at the edge of the continent &c. No, I wasn't talking about New Orleans. I was talking about Fargo. I'm moving back to NOLA in June, and my wife is already there. But for now, I remain where I've been for over a decade, in (or around) Fargo.

Yes, the city in the movie. Or at least in the name of the movie. The movie was actually shot in rural Minnesota, and not in North Dakota. I spent about a half year working for a politician in northwest Minnesota (one of two bachelor-pilot-musicians in Congress I worked for, and what're the odds of that?). When I worked for the congressman I saw so many places like the town where the erstwhile female police officer questioned people; little, half block long cul de sac streets off a highway, huddling around a water tower like serfs living under the keep.

Yeah, I know those places, all near a wooded lake where in December you can drive an F-350 dragging a ice house the size of a FEMA trailer behind you onto the lake, where you can always borrow a neighbor's chipper/shredder when you need one. That Minnesota. Lake Woebegon. You know the place.

North Dakota only has a cameo on screen, the scenes where the guy is looking for the money hidden on the side of the road. That one shot, of the fence line in the blowing snow, that's North Dakota. At least, that's North Dakota in January or February. In early March, eventhing finally begins to thaw-at least, part of the time--until the city is one fantastic ice sculpture of tire track pressure ridges, on which we walk and drive for entertainment.

A few people up here still ask me about my mom and all. Well, they don't use those words, but they ask how they're doing. The few that know my wife is already in New Orleans wonder how she's doing as well. But they don't ask about New Orleans, about why we're moving there, about why we'd want to.

Like the rest of the nation, Fargo has Katrina fatigue. There's just so much of someone else's disaster a person can take, before they turn away. It might be different if I lived in Grand Forks, which experienced its own disastrous flood in 1997, ranked the eight worst natural disaster in U.S. history. (Read this interesting blog post from someone with ties to both the Gulf Coast and the Red River Floods, if you don't remember the 1997 floods in the Red River of the North).

It's so easy for people in this part of the world to just turn away after six months. People in New Orleans seem so needy, so demanding. There was a major ice storm late in the fall, and an email began circulating claiming how much better North Dakotans were than those people in that part of the world.

As the Snopes article points out, North Dakota didn't hesitate to belly up to the federal trough and demand aid, as they've done every single year for the last decade. North Dakota is tied with Louisiana, Texas and Ohio for ninth place among states with the most major disaster declarations by the central government.

In fact, North Dakota has the longest streak of consecutive major disaster declarations of any state in the Union. With a state population slightly smaller than that of antediluvian Orleans Parish, the state has received $711 million in federal disaster assistance in the last decade. That doesn't even count money for agriculture, which comes separately.

From 1995 to 2003, NoDak received another $796 million in crop disaster assistance, coming in second behind Texas in the total received, according to this story in the Des Moines IA Register. Interestingly, only about 58% of farmers nationally avail themselves of federally-subsidized crop insurance, but they expect (and receive) regular government disaster aid.

Yes, a nice chuck of that $711 million was tied to the 1997 flood, which damanged some 8,600 homes and was tagged as causing between $1 and $2 billion in damage. Without that particular event, N.D. would drop out of the top ten, most likely. But the fact is, there's a lot of equally needy places getting aid year in and year out. Unlike New Orleans, they weren't even the victims of the gross negligence of their government. They all just choose to live in places where life's a bit dicey. Just like NOLA.

I think it's fair to ask the people in North Dakota, and any of the other states on the top 10 list of federal disaster aid: if you accept the idea of short-changing New Orleans, how do you know you're not next? (If you don't think the city is being short-changed, start by reading this earlier post, and then some of Da Po' Blog's excellent deconstruction of the actual amount of federal aid, as opposed to money owed for flood insurance premiums paid, thats going to the city. )

People in all these disaster-prone states live in a high risk environment, and require a steady stream of federal assistance to do so. I'm writing about North Dakota because it is the state on that list (excluding Louisiana) that I'm familiar with. Chronic droughts west and flood east, blizzards and ice storms, tornados and derechoes: it's like a disaster buffet at the Sons of Norway. Still, there are even more chronic complainers in other states.

People in all the states that top the list of leading disaster assistance recipients need to start asking themselves: what will you say when others question whether people really should be living there? Why should the rest of the country subsidize your foolish choice of locations?

If you let the government walk away from New Orleans, how do you know you won't be the next ones crossed off the list?

This is the salient point that so many seem to be missing, the elephant in the living room. Even if you're not in one of those states, nature is random and everybody's gonna be unlucky once in a while. Should we not have built Tampa or San Francisco, Saint Louis or New York? They are all vulnerable.

Was NOLA uniquely vulnerable? Probably. At least that's what we were told at Loyola's Freshman Orientation and again at Move-In. Did the city's ROI make it worth the chance for the rest of the country? Of course.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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